At Large: Sweet talking, chocolate cake, assorted waffle

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IT IS hard to gauge which is more annoying: England's woeful Test performances this summer, or missing at least a day at the best soap opera on radio because the damn match is usually over by Sunday. There's a strong argument for the latter: Test Match Special, after all, is compulsive and compulsory listening not just for cricket fans, but also for scores of people who wouldn't know square leg from The Oval.

But behind the scenes, is this unscripted drama (up to five acts with an all-male cast) as zany as it sounds? Do they really get lots of chocolate cake? Is Fred Trueman truly that grumpy? And shouldn't cricket commentary be an altogether more serious affair, particularly in the light of current England performances? The answers are yes, yes, yes. And no - though some BBC mandarins believe otherwise.

A place in the Test Match Special box may give the perfect view from behind the bowler's arm, but it's no place to relax. On my day with the team at Edgbaston, three people jammed together watch play out of the window. On the right is Bill Frindall, the Bearded Wonder. Three stop watches (one for each batsman, one for the team, and a digital clock for the time, face the man who has been statistician for 27 years. Surprisingly, he is not surrounded by crumbling Wisdens. Large folders at his feet supply arcane details on the best fifth-wicket partnership by two brothers. Frindall is the only one on duty all day.

In the centre sits a ball-by-ball commentator. He will work a 20-minute shift (complicated by Radio 5 duties). 'People think that you just get in front of a microphone and waffle,' said Jonathan Agnew, the team's newest recruit. 'They don't see all the work you are doing.'

His co-commentators today include the urbane, headmasterish Christopher Martin-Jenkins (cruelly criticised by Don Mosey in his book The Alderman's Tale . . .'a beautiful speaking voice, a fine, confident natural delivery, but what depth of technical knowledge of the game had he? How well did he understand the mind of a professional cricketer?'). Bit unfair, that. He did make 99 for Marlborough at Lord's, and edited The Cricketer.

The token foreigner is Neville Oliver, a boisterous Tasmanian who may be outnumbered but is rarely lost for words. When England appeal loudly for a catch, Oliver (who has been watching from the roof) pops back in the box and asks mischievously: 'What about that intimidation of the umpires, eh? You'll want to mention that.'

And then there is Brian Johnston, now 81 yet the smartest man on duty, though his green and pink tie and black and white brogues show a cavalier approach to power dressing. With 733 editions of Down Your Way behind him, and nearly 300 Tests, Johnston completed a one-man tour earlier this year and attracted up to 2,000 people a night. And all those cake stories are true, Johnston samples all four cakes on offer that day with the air of a gourmet. 'This chocolate one is a little dry, unfortunately,' he says apologetically.

He's a perfect foil for Fred Trueman. The Yorkshireman is one of two summarisers (today, Lloyd is the other) who sit in front of a TV monitor, giving expert views. Idiosyncratic, opinionated, truculent, locked in the golden days when Britannia ruled the waves, Yorkshire won the Championship and England won Test matches - this is Trueman. He sits under the No Smoking sign with his pipe in his mouth. 'He's not good enough,' he confides gloomily to me after another journeyman English over.

Behind his broad back, Trueman is an easy target for the others, especially Johnston. When a county physiotherapist has the nerve to fax a reply to Trueman's criticism of an England bowler's action, Fred, fired up by a decent lunch, finds it hard to control his rage: 'I've taken 307 England wickets, and he tries to tell me about fast bowling . . .' Johnston, with a straight face, says: 'It seemed a perfectly good and reasoned letter to me.'

But Trueman, more than any of the others, reflects and voices the gloom, even anger, felt by many cricket supporters at England's woeful summer. And if he could still get into his whites, you feel that he would love to take the new ball and show these Aussies a thing or two.

Being on air does not exempt a commentator or summariser from off-air heckling. An announcement about Tim Tremlett's benefit match against an Injured Jockeys XI draws some understandable chuckles and asides which the listener rarely hears; and when Martin-Jenkins says: 'He must be intelligent because he has a big head,' the theme continues into the next day. Like a game of rugby, others will collect the ball and run with it.

Peter Baxter, the producer, hovers like a mother hen in the background. 'He's No 3 in the Deloitte - or is it Cooper and Lybrand? - ratings,' says one commentator. 'Oh go on, you might as well mention all of them,' Baxter fusses to himself. Still, the others need Baxter, not just to make sure the mikes work and the standby tapes are ready in case of rain. But to battle for their cause. Though Test Match Special was reprieved two years ago (intervention by John Major played a part), it does not sit happily in the BBC pigeonholes.

The Radio 3 controller, Nicholas Kenyon, doesn't want his highbrow airwaves polluted by Yorkshire accents and schoolboy pranks. Radio 5 is batting for the programme, but its own fate is far from certain and anyway, cricket would have to compete for air time with everything from football to horse racing. So the present less-than-ideal compromise is Radio 5 in the morning, Radio 3 in the afternoon. 'A lot of our audience are not cricket fans or sports fans; they are Test Match Special fans,' Baxter says.